Thursday, August 16, 2007

Pizza Adventures in Maine

Well I know I owe my devoted readership some closure on my oven build, but hey, the three of y'all will just have to wait. I'll post some photos in the near future.

But for now, lets talk serious production earthen ovens. Earlier this month we made our annual summer trek to the Great North. My cousin and her family were the real attraction in Portland, Maine, but a close second was the Flatbread Company's restaurant on the waterfront. Its proprietors have smartly placed a viewing bench in front of the "modified Quebec-style oven." Undoubtedly it was designed to entertain the younger patrons, but I was able to squeeze between squirmy kids for a good view of the pizzaolo plying his primitive trade. The restaurant, whose affiliation with the original American Flatbread Company remains something of a mystery to me, serves up the same genre of simple but inspired pizza, salads and desserts. The space is not bucolic like the Waitsfield restaurant, but is almost as appealing. The view below is from the restaurant's back deck looking into a thickening Portland fog.

Deep at the core of my being, I know that Richmond is ready for such an establishment. But who shall bring it to us?

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Second Layer

Last time we completed the first layer of the dome. This update brings us through the second layer. As you recall, the first layer is thinner with no straw added to the clay mix. The second layer is thicker and adds neccesary thermal mass to the oven.

We begin with more mixing. This time we are mixing true cob -- a mixture of Virginia red earth, sand, straw and water. Because I had some powdered Red Art clay on hand and little left over coarse grog from the first layer, I added it as well.

I learned an important lesson about oven-building collaboration. While these projects are great fun for the kids, adult helpers can actually make the project go faster and provide good company. In this session, I was particularly lucky to have two helpers with great attitudes and actual experience in working with clay. In the future, I shall encourage more adult collaboration in my oven building activities.

Here, Mr. J does the cobbers' high step with me.

As before, we patted the cob into mushy bricks to facilitate the orderly shaping of the second layer. At the beginning of the day, it seemed anything approaching a brick shape would do. By the end of the afternoon, Mr. J's standards had changed and the bricks seemed much improved in shape and integrity.

We laid the cob "bricks" in courses around the first layer. The trick is to proceed as though you are truly building one course on top of another, merely using the existing dome as a guide. Note how pressure is applied down and not inward toward the dome.

We mixed two large batches of cob and one tiny one just at the end because -- of course - we were a two bricks shy. Here, Ms. J and I put the last bits of cob in place.

The last order of business was to smooth the outside of the second layer using hands and a rocking motion with a flat board.

After drying out, which takes at least a few days, the oven is functional. However, a final layer of adobe plaster makes the exterior a little more presentable by, among other things, hiding the straw pieces. Next update will include photos of the "plastered" end product.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Il Duomo

Last time, we had just completed another course of stone work. So we start off by filling the top three or four inches of the foundation with concrete because, if you recall, I was determined to make a floor that would not cave in. The first layer of concrete had vermiculite mixed in for insulation -- a nice idea, but poorly executed. I don't think the vermiculite layer will be thick enough to have a material insulating effect. We made the concrete flush with the edges of the foundation.

Next I added a ring of bricks (salvaged from the yard) and two concrete pavers. The idea was to create a circular sandbox on which to lay my firebrick floor (sans mortar).

I dry-stacked a firebrick door frame using angle irons (as suggested by Kiko Denzer). I really wanted to make the entrance point of the oven a little more civilized this time.

I've been dying to try a little brick masonry and this seemed to give the dry-stacked firebrick arch a little extra support. I am hoping the mortar will be insulated from the most intense heat so that it will not degrade too rapidly -- even if it does, it won't seriously undermine the structural integrity of the oven. The paving bricks are stacked in the center to hold in place a piece of drywall that will prevent the sand form from spilling through the door.

I don't have a picture but I laid sand on the concrete floor until it was flush with the two front concrete pavers. This picture shows the firebrick laid on top of the sand. I took some scrap bricks and laid them to the sides of the floor to keep things in place and to support the clay walls.

We spent a surprisingly long time forming the sand mound. Kiko cautions that the form should rise very steeply and then round off gently at the top. For some reason, the temptation is to build a pointy form, which makes for a poorly shaped oven. He says to aspire to a pregnant belly shape, which is probably why it took me so long. Try though I did, my best effort was still a pretty scary looking pregnancy.

Once you sculpt a beautiful sand form, you promptly cover it up with ugly wet newspaper. Mine declared the immigration bill defeated. This helps form a clean break between the sand form and clay to facilitate removal of the sand.

We mixed dry clay and grog -- this is where I part company with purists like Kiko Denzer. I used one part Redart Clay, one part Hawthorne Fire Clay, one part 35 mesh grog and one part course grog that the ceramic supply store had lying around and didn't know what to do with. I measured the "parts" by volume not by weight. In the end I used 100 pounds of Hawthorne, about 85 pounds of Redart and 175 pounds of grog. Kiko uses earth and sand.

After adding water and mixing with our feet, we formed wet bricks.

McGee, desperate to be a part of the process, kept dropping his tennis balls into the clay mixture.

We encased the sand form with the wet clay. I made two larges batches of clay -- which ended up being about three bricks short (not reflected in the photo below - which was more like the halfway point). This was very frustrating. I made a third small batch of clay to top off the crown.

Once formed, I scored the sides with a trowel so that the next layer would have something to grip to.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Demolition Complete; Rebuild Begins

The demolition is complete. Assistance was had by two laborers with demonstrated skills in destruction.

I was impressed by the integrity of the inner layer (pictured below) and the outer layer (long gone in this photo). Curiously the middle layer (pictured above) -- which should have been the structurally most sound - was very crumbly.

Look how uneven my oven floor had become. The sand beneath the bricks sifted through the gravel bed and caused the floor to cave. This had been a constant headache for me in the early months after the oven build. I had to remove the bricks and relay gravel and sand, but it was impossible to make it level after the oven structure was in place. For the latter years of the oven, I lived with an uneven floor. Remarkably, it did not seem to matter as much as you might think. Nevertheless, I have vowed not to let this happen again. This time I will lay a bed of concrete for the sand to sit on.
The rebuild has begun. I added a course of stones to the base and added crushed adobe from the demolition as extra fill.

Friday, May 11, 2007


We visited Vermont this spring to expose our southern children to snow and -- perhaps unwisely - to the supremely expensive pastime of downhill skiing. No trip to the Mad River valley would be complete without a pilgrimage to American Flatbread and it was thus that I found myself once again peeking over the shoulder of the pizzaolo, camera in hand.

For anyone infatuated with Adobe ovens, this is an interesting photo. Start with the proposition that this is a pizza oven that churns out hundreds of high-quality pizzas in a day and can cook multiple pizzas at one time. I am standing to the left of the oven's opening and looking back into the right hand side of an oval oven. The middle of the oven is dedicated to a fire "pit." On either side of the pit, is a raised shelf (soapstone, I think) on which George appears to fit up to three large pizzas. Because the heat source is in the middle, the sides of the pizza that are exposed to the pizzaolo are the sides that brown the fastest, thus elimating the guess work that is required when the heat sources in the back and browns the side of the pizza not visible to the cook. Raising the cooking shelves eliminates the volume of ash and other "fire waste" that invariably finds its way onto the cooking space.

I have grown weary of my own oven's shortcomings and, for some time, have felt restless to rebuild. The project will be modest and will include none of the more unique and admirable features of George's oven. I will retain my roof and the current pedestal/platform but hope to increase the floor space. Ideally, I'd like to be able to cook two 10-12 inch pizzas at a time but I don't think this will be possible. The limiting factor for me currently is the available surface on which to lay sand for the floor bricks. Unfortunately, when I built my rock "pedestal" for the oven platform I used large and irregular-shaped stones. The mere size of the stones left a relatively small area in the middle to place sand and firebricks for floorspace (imagine a sandbox with super thick walls and very little sand). Of course, the size of the floor limits the size of the oven. I hope to increase the height of the pedestal/platform with another ring of small rocks or bricks held in place with mortar, thus increasing the surface area for the oven floor (imagine a sandbox with thin walls but more sand.)

There are certainly many open questions for the rebuild. Among the foremost is choice of material. My current oven contains a thinner interior layer of commercial red art clay mixed with grog. The additional two exterior layers are locally dug clay (you can see the three layers above). The interior layer has worked well, but I'd prefer to use all local clay if I knew that it wouldn't crumble and crack, which I don't.
We'll see and I'll keep y'all posted.

Monday, March 19, 2007


The contractions came late on a cold January evening in 2000. A blanket of snow uncharacteristically adorned the city of Richmond. Ann’s body was sending a clear message. It was time.

I had acquired a sports stop watch believing somehow that the simple act of timing contractions was going to be a task of near impossible complexity under the crushing stress of labor. After all, it did involve math. Gazing out at the quiet calm of our sleepy city neighborhood and listening to Ann’s softly uttered signals, I realized for the first time that the bright yellow stop watch was an acquisition fueled by anxiety. I had imagined myself hunkered down by the side of the bed gripping the stop watch with white knuckles as limbs thrashed on the bed tearing covers and frightening small furry critters nestled in giant pin oak outside our bedroom window. In my mind, I would be splattered with blood and saliva and god knows what else. It would be war. I chuckled at the ridiculous gleaming stop watch and lay back in bed completely unaware that my impression had not been that far off.

I logged on to my firm’s network and took advantage of the once in a lifetime opportunity to cash in on the valuable capital that a person has on the eve of their first child’s birth. “Dear Manager: Wife’s in labor and anything could happen in any minute. Please take care of all my deadlines.”

Smugly, I put the laptop away and poked around the kitchen. The culinary considerations were complex. I knew that Ann would be working hard. She would need energy. On the other hand, I had heard that labor could induce vomiting. I also knew that Ann was especially finicky at this point. With these thoughts in mind, I lined up some possibilities. An obvious choice was Pasta. Ann is half Italian and pasta is comfort food but then I envisioned regurgitated red sauce splattered on stark white hospital linens about to welcome my precious child into the world. I imagined her first breath fouled by the pungent smell of stomach acid mixed with sheep’s milk pecorino Romano, which, come to think of it, already had faint overtones of vomit. She could be forever predisposed against pasta and red sauce, an important identity peg for her mother. Worst case scenario, Ann would reject her as insufficiently Italian because she would never overcome her utter disgust over pasta and red sauce. It was pushing 3:00 a.m. and I wasted 10 minutes. Cold cereal with soy milk seemed too cold for blustery winter night. Eggs were stricken based on taste parameters alone. Finally, I stumbled on a box of Malt-O-Meal that my uncle in Minneapolis had sent as part of a gag Midwestern care package. This seemed perfect and I liked the idea of my child coming into this world under fuel of something as wholesome and Midwestern as Malt-O-Meal. In some way, this was my very first act of parenthood and that it was well-received was immensely satisfying to me.

For a short while, I would feel composed and confident, but that feeling (through no fault of the Malt-O-Meal) would not last long ...

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Future of Food

If you have an interest in food and agriculture, I highly recommend the film Future of Food.

The film has an agenda, namely to promote what they term "sustainable agriculture" and to disparage the corporations and government regulators that promote industrial farming. It is, however, a very compelling look at, among other things, the frightening loss of crop diversity in American and increasingly in international farming. This loss of diversity is not only a travesty for culinary enthusiasts but also a palpable risk to our food supply.

Also very interesting is the film's coverage of the ruthless tactics that corporations such as Monsanto have employed to exert control over the marketplace by enforcing patents on their genetically modified seeds. The interesting thing about patenting life is that life, unlike, say, a toaster, replicates and spreads. Thus, according to the film, Monsanto's patented genes have found there way into unsuspecting farmer's crops after which Monsanto has had the unmitigated audacity to sue for patent infringement. Using these tactics, Monsanto has, again, according to the film, pressured farmers (who never actually purchased Monsanto seed stock in the first place) into agreeing not to save their own seeds, thereby ensuring the sale of Monsanto seeds. If these farmers are to be believed, this is akin to breaking into cars, installing your own patented stick shift, and then suing the owners for patent infringement.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Ice Cream for Your Health

I really can't think of any good reason not to make ice cream at home. No appliance could possibly be more widely-owned but under-utilized than the ice cream maker. So that's an excuse you probably don't have. Nor could there be more than handful of humans who could honestly claim to not have an affinity for the frozen custard that we consume in almost unspeakable quantities.
Now, hold on. I know what you are about to say. But its not true. For most of us -- yes you too, there -- making our own ice cream has a net positive impact on our health. "Mais Non! How can this be Monsieur le BackBou?" you ask. But the answer is simple. The very act of preparing a classic ice cream recipe of necessity changes a person's relationship with the product. My typical one quart recipe goes like this -- 6 eggs yolks, 1 cup whole cream, two cups half and half and 2/3 cup sugar. Ever since I started making ice cream (which, not coincidentally was shortly after I got married) the notion of consuming something close to a pint approaches the impossible. And this, I will tell you, represents a significant change in my ice cream eating habits. Now perhaps you were never the gourmand that I was, but I'm willing to bet a little quality time in the kitchen with your ice cream maker will change your relationship with the stuff.
But wait, that's not all. It is also really easy to make, much less expensive than Ben & Jerries and extraordinarily gratifying in every respect. Basically, you just cook the half and half (or other dairy), sugar and yolks over a double boiler until it thickens some, then you cool it, add some whole cream, and then after some refrigerator time you toss it all into the ice cream maker. Of course, there are the embellishments -- melted chocolate, coffee beans, vanilla, hazelnuts, Oreos and what have you, but they add no complexity to the process.
The real reason to make ice cream, of course, is to enjoy the end product. A simple homemade vanilla bean ice cream is its own reward.